Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989)

Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is my favorite kind of unnecessary horror sequel. Since the first film in Katt Shea’s unashamed sleaze franchise is a self-contained murder mystery mostly comprised of 15(!!!) strip routines and a few gruesome murders, no one was exactly salivating for a follow-up – at least not for narrative reasons. The only reason the sequel was made in the first place (besides the surprise financial success of its predecessor) is that Roger Corman had a strip club set leftover from an unrelated production for a few days before it was going to be dismantled. Having wrapped filming her previous picture Dance of the Damned on a Saturday and rushed unprepared into filming this movie on the leftover set with no script the following Monday, Shea found herself working in the Corman machine at its most budget-efficient but most creatively restrained. She used the few days of strip club access to film as many dance routines as she could, then retroactively churned out a screenplay to tie them together in the following weeks. The result is total madness, a disjointed sense of reality that transforms the original serial-killer-of-strippers formula of Stripped to Kill into something much more surreal & directly from the id. It’s the same madhouse horror sequel approach as films like Slumber Party Massacre 2, Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2, and Poltergeist III: avoiding rote repetition of its predecessor by completely letting go of reality and indulging in an over-the-top free-for-all of nightmare logic. The fact that it was written in a rush after it already started filming only adds to its surrealist pleasures, like how the best SNL skits are the nonsensical ones written in a 3 a.m. state of delirium.

Live Girls opens with its best scene. A frightened stripper in 80s hairspray & lingerie dances in frightened flight as a room full of mysterious nightmare figures reach out to handle & harm her. Ominous winds roar on the soundtrack as if we had accidentally stumbled into David Lynch’s wet dreams. The dance routine itself is less akin to the straightforward LA strip club acts of the previous film than it is to the interpretive dance madness of The Red Shoes or any Kate Bush music video you can conjure (especially the one where Bush pays homage to The Red Shoes). As early as that opening, it’s clear that Live Girls has abandoned the gritty real-world crime drama of Stripped to Kill for a logically looser MTV aesthetic, caring little for how plausible its strip routines & murder spree play onscreen as long as they’re “cool.” The dance numbers are less frequent here (they were rushed to accommodate a soon-to-disappear set, after all), but they’re also more memorably bizarre. A tag-team lion tamer act, a fire-breathing routine with a flaming stripper pole, and an oddly juvenile ballerina number feel just as detached from reality as the frequent dream-sequence murders that are expressed in full-on interpretive dance. Although the MTV nightmare logic of the opening sequence does persist throughout, though, the film never quite matches the Kate Bush striptease madness of its opening, which concludes with a masked killer taking out their first stripper victim with a razor blade kiss. The howling winds of this opening nightmare do return in subsequent stripper-killing dreams, but none are quite as delirious or deranged as the first. Still, I was too immediately enamored for my mood to drop too significantly as the movie calmed down to stage a proper murder mystery.

Besides adding some heightened surrealism to its never-ending parade of strip routines, the dream logic conceit of Live Girls also improves on the Stripped to Kill formula by obscuring the misogyny of its stripper-killing violence. In this sequel, the kills are staged in the context of a stripper’s half-remembered dreams as she mentally unravels. Amidst the dream sequences of interpretive dance, a masked killer with a razor blade secured in their mouth slices stripper victims on the face & neck with a deadly kiss and our frazzled protagonist wakes with a mouth full of blood & no recollection of the hours since she blacked out. The ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity is unfortunately just as politically #problematic here as it was at the conclusion of the previous film. The difference is that the kills leading up to it aren’t nearly as brutally misogynistic. I respect the unembarrassed sleaze of Stripped to Kill in concept, but the way that film alternates between gawking at women’s bodies as sexual objects and then gawking at those same bodies being mangled and torn apart left me a little queasy at times. Here, both the sex and the violence are less reminiscent of real-world misogyny and play more like a horny teenager’s nightmare than a proper thriller. Disembodied hands reach through a series of glory holes on a shiny zebra-striped wall to grab a stripper as she’s tormented by the howling wind. Occultist strippers with face-obscuring masks & robes dance erratic circles around a victim before they’re kissed to death at the business end of a fog machine. Both Stripped to Kill films end on a morally offensive queerphobic twist, but only the first is truly morally grotesque long before it gets there. This follow up is loopy & goofy in all the places where its predecessor is grimy & gruesome, endearingly so. The neon lights & hairspray-fried mops of curls didn’t change between the two films, but the worlds they decorate feel like they belong to entirely separate realms – the real & the unreal, the grotesque & the delirious.

In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions. Even if the final twist spoils the fun, you do have to admire the distinct delirium of the picture, which it shares with other rushed-through-production Corman classics like Blood Bath, Bucket of Blood, and Little Shop of Horrors. This addition to that haphazard canon of barely coherent projects that somehow lucked into cult status is a little more adherent to the bare flesh & neon lighting of MTV-era sleaze than its cohorts, but it fits right in among the best of ‘em all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

For the last decade solid, the superhero franchise has dominated box office receipts as a medium, to the point where hardly anything else has room to breathe. This pop culture takeover largely started with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series & the MCU kickstarter Iron Man in the late aughts, which combined to redefine the comic book adaptation as being not just kids’ stuff anymore. “Thanks” to The Dark Knight & Iron Man, nerd culture is popular culture now, where superhero comics media is expected to be taken seriously as Art for Adults, leaving the days of more over-the-top properties with Saturday Morning Cartoon energy like Sam Raimi’s Darkman or Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 far behind in the cultural dustbin. I often miss the go-for-broke zaniness of those earlier works as the MCU and the *shudder* DCEU have become such well-oiled machines that you more or less know what to expect from their individual franchise entries a year before the pictures even reach the screen. It’s tempting to look back to the early stirrings of comic book adaptations’ sea change in the late aughts, then, and imagine what might have been if culture had shifted in a different direction. What kind of gloriously fucked up world would we be living in if Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone had won the culture war instead of The Dark Knight?

As an aesthetic object, Punisher: War Zone is clearly of the same cloth as the dark, “gritty” genre filmmaking that commands The Dark Knight Trilogy & its legion of grimly macho descendants. An emotionally troubled, gruff anti-hero violently tears down webs of organized crime while bathed in dark, sickly green lighting & harsh music video edits. Questions of whether vigilante justice has gone too far plague the titular “hero’s” tirade against powerful mobsters & crooked cops, echoing the anguished ethical philosophy at the core of the Dark Knight series. And yet, Punisher: War Zone could not be further in tone from Nolan’s self-serious philosophical sobriety. Even the more jocular, brightly lit counterbalance of the MCU is no match for the places Alexander takes the superhero medium here. To put it plainly, Punisher: War Zone is goofy as fuck. For all of its gruff macho exterior & onscreen depictions of vicious hyperviolence, it reaches levels of silly delirium unseen in a comic book adaptation of its stature since the cartoon energy of Dick Tracy in the 90s. This is a superhero narrative where cops have no interest in catching the murderous anti-hero, despite having rooms full of evidence on the bodies he’s left behind, because they respect his alpha male ability to get the job done while the judicial system leaves their own hands tied. That sounds like it would be poisoned with an insufferable level of superhero machismo, but somehow it comes across onscreen as so deliciously silly that it’s almost wholesome. Almost.

Considering its hard-R exaggeration of its comic book ultraviolence, Punisher: War Zone is decidedly not for children. No opportunities for bloodshed are wasted here. Bullets rip open skulls in glorious practical effects gore. Mobsters’ faces are dragged across seas of broken glass bottles, carved to shreds. Heads cave like melons when punched. If you find yourself asking, “Why is the stem on that wine glass so long?,” it’s because it’s soon to be plunged through a victim’s throat. However grotesque, this cartoonish fascination with the violent breakdown of the human body is decidedly juvenile. Punisher: War Zone wastes no time pretending that its violent antihero tirade represents some philosophical, allegorical dilemma about right & wrong in a world without a moral center. The closest it gets to meaningful dialogue is in the hilarity of awkward one-liners like, “Let me put you out of my misery,” and, when The Punisher oversteps the bounds of justice, “Who punishes you?” Why waste time pretending any of this action spectacle actually means something when you could just as easily set up a lengthy gag where parkour-obsessed goons are swiftly destroyed with a bazooka just before they get to show off their skills? Punisher: War Zone earns its R-rating in nearly every frame, but it does so while staying true to the childish sense of humor inherent to comic books media. It’s essentially the same juvenile slapstick violence that commands Shoot Em Up, except played straight which is to say it’s 1000x better than Shoot Em Up.

Practically speaking, it’s no use wondering what might have been if Punisher: War Zone was a smash hit instead of The Dark Knight. The film made only a third of the superhero box office numbers earned by notorious flop Howard the Duck two decades earlier – no adjustment for inflation. It’s a cult object at best. Even if it had been a hit, Hollywood studios have a tendency to learn the wrong lessons from box office successes and its formula could have inspired some truly hideous art in other directors’ hands – both visually & morally. Still, there’s a certain live action cartoon energy to Punisher: War Zone that was largely AWOL in superhero media in the past decade as comic book franchises sought a grittier, more tonally sober path. You can detect that sensibility’s gradual return in recent late-franchise entries like Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Aquaman, but even those films feel overly restrained & concerned with respectability in a way that never crosses War Zone‘s delirious mind. This is an aggressively juvenile, brutally violent splatter fest that stays true to both ends of the comic book medium – the grimly macho & the unapologetically silly – in a tonal juggling act more films could benefit to emulate. If you’re going to be constantly bombarded with superhero media, there should be plenty of room for more outliers to be this wildly unpredictable & deliriously silly.

-Brandon Ledet

Greta (2019)

The camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a dual career revival for its two stars – Bette Davis & Joan Crawford – who had aged out of Old Hollywood’s cruelly small window of use for the in-their-prime actresses, despite their incomparable talents. While the surprise high-profile success of Baby Jane did lead to more roles for the two late-career titans, though, it also typecast them for dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level, all because Hollywood deemed them too old to be fuckable. Davis & Crawford spent the rest of their careers as sadistic nannies, axe-wielding maniacs, and black magic hags – creepy old ladies who were literally, lethally demented. Baby Jane spawned an entire subgenre later coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the ”Grande Dame” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation.” Other notable actresses got roped into the genre as it continued to make money on the drive-in circuit: Shelly Winters in What’s the Matter with Helen? & Who Slew Auntie Roo?; Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling; Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; etc. If there’s anything the once-respected British director Neil Jordan accomplishes in his recent cheapie Greta, it’s in reviving the psychobiddy genre for the 2010s, allowing his titular star Isabelle Huppert to chew scenery the way Davis & Crawford had in similar relics of hagsploitation past. The cultural context around Huppert’s casting has changed drastically since the days of the post-Baby Jane psychobiddies; the actor has been allowed to be complex, compelling, and sexy in plenty of better projects in recent years in a way Davis & Crawford weren’t at her age. Still, it’s crystal clear that Huppert is working within the hagsploitation paradigm here. She’s not even emulating the classier end of the genre like Baby Jane or Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte either; Greta is more on the level of the Bette Davis pic The Nanny or Crawford’s Strait Jacket: the really trashy shit.

While I am overall positive on this picture as a campy delight, I should be clear upfront; Isabelle Huppert is Greta’s only saving grace. In the film’s earliest scenes, before Huppert’s old-biddy cruelty enters the frame, goings are tough. Between Chloë Grace Moretz’s non-presence as a naïve country bumkin in the big city (even though she’s originally from the small podunk town of Boston?) and Neil Jordan’s severely unfunny misestimation of how young women talk & think, the first half hour of place setting is a cringey bore. Even the early scenes of Moretz & Huppert forming and unlikely intergenerational friendship (and surrogate mother-daughter dynamic) after a chance meeting in the vast anonymity of NYC are alarmingly limp. It isn’t until Moretz discovers that the pretense of their initial meeting – a luxury purse Huppert “accidentally” left on a subway train, luring strangers to return it to her – was a deliberate scam that Greta finally comes alive. The remainder of the film is exponentially more fun as Huppert gradually escalates from clingy grifter to creepy stalker to kidnapper to full-blown murderess. The dialogue never improves as the stakes are heightened, but Huppert brings life to the material through the stubborn will over her over-the-top performance. Watching her flip tables, menacingly “teach” piano as a form of torture, get carted away on a stretcher like Hannibal Lecter, and shout disciplinary epithets like “This is a bed of lies!” to her Misery-like victim is a perverse, persistent pleasure that overpowers the dialogue’s more glaring shortcomings. If nothing else, there’s a whimsical little dance she does – like a child’s improvised, freeform ballet recital – in her violent showdown with veteran Neil Jordan collaborator Stephen Rea that is A+ delirious camp and alone worth the price of admission. I don’t know that I would readily describe Greta as a great movie so much as a great performance, but like with Tom Hardy in Venom, Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss, or any number of over-the-top psychobiddy performances in its own genre’s spotty past, the film is the performance. Thankfully, nothing else matters here, because Moretz & Jordan could have easily dragged the material down if Huppert weren’t such a spectacle.

The trick of appreciating Greta as a psycobiddy revival is in affording Huppert’s performance enough time to fully heat up. I wouldn’t blame anyone for bailing during the film’s fun-vacuum prologue, but those who leave the film early will miss out on the joys of watching one of our great living actors indulge in some over-the-top cartoon villainy once she’s afforded the space. There’s even comfort in the fact that, unlike with hagsploitation titles of the past, Huppert has not been locked out of landing more substantial work in better pictures because of her age, which is how the psycobiddy was born in the first place. This is more of a trashy detour for her than a professional dead end, which makes it all the more fun to watch her indulge in a bit of vicious camp at the expense of her wet noodle collaborators, as opposed to feeling embarrassed for her the way we were when the great Joan Crawford was typecast as an axe-wielding maniac despite her legendary cinematic pedigree.

-Brandon Ledet

The Net (1995)

There was a stunning late-2018 phenomena in the week between Christmas and New Year’s where everyone in my immediate social & professional circles who normally don’t care at all about movies suddenly cared a lot about one movie in particular: Bird Box. The absurd, instantaneous ubiquity of Bird Box‘s online premise caused on uproar of memes, then memes about those memes, then conspiracy theories about where the memes came from in the first place. Whether Bird Box‘s cultural moment was manufactured by the Netflix advertising machine or it was a genuine response to a widely available genre film with a flashy premise, its sudden online omnipresence was a great reminder to watch another Sandra Bullock vehicle that had been sitting unwatched on my shelf for months: the 1995 cyberthriller The Net. I don’t know that there ever was a time when The Net dominated online culture in proto-meme ridicule the way Bird Box hijacked everyone’s brain for 72 hours, but wild internet conspiracy theories about Bird Box‘s marketing had a distinct Net-ish flavor to it anyway. To put it in 1995 terms, Bird Box Week was a terrifying time when America got hacked by an elite group of cyberterrorists – Netflix’s marketing department.

The most convincing argument that Bird Box‘s instantaneous online success was a natural occurrence instead of an algorithm “hack” job is that Sandra Bullock is just that much of a draw. Curiously enough, that exact argument is what makes the basic premise of The Net so ludicrously unconvincing. Sometime in the 1990s audiences (and well-compensated PR teams) unanimously crowned Julia Roberts as America’s Sweetheart, only for that position to quickly trickle down to Sandra Bullock sometime around the release of Miss Congeniality (and, arguably, later to Reese Witherspoon). As one of America’s Official Sweethearts, Bullock is often cast as an everyday Plain Jane in roles she is far too beautiful & vibrantly charismatic to pull off. I’ve never seen a more preposterous version of that dissonance than in The Net, where Bullock plays a friendless loner slob computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s alone in the world. Watching Bullock slovenly eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into surreally unbelievable territory. That inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, though – a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no.

Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net‘s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture. I feel like I already blather until I’m hoarse about how user-interface cyberthrillers like Unfriended, Cam, Nerve, and #horror are documenting online culture & tech textures in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare; The Net is only further proof how invaluable that will be after just a few years’ time. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that elite hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploring then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the MacGuffinous floppy disc. Just as important as those loud, overwhelming shouts of digitized culture fearmongering, though, are the documentation of more grounded, everyday online activities as Bullock frantically types away on her ancient PC.

Of course, all of this alarmist documentatarian focus on mid-90s internet culture often opens up the film to being outright silly, charmingly so. Primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic. A lot of that ridicule is overexaggerated, such as a much-mocked scene where Bullock orders food delivery from the fictitious Pizza.Net that more or less predicted the Domino’s online delivery app a decade in advance, as if this were prescient sci-fi instead of a ludicrously dated thriller. Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete.

Without its Evil Internet gimmick and the America’s Sweetheart charisma of Sandra Bullock, The Net would have a dime-a-dozen quality in 90s thriller terms. I assume the same could be said of Bird Box‘s respective gimmick, sight unseen (pun intended). There’s much worse a thriller could do to grab your attention than exploit a preposterous high-concept scenario & employ a surefire box office star, though. For instance, it could flood the internet with fake accounts & preloaded memes or hack your VOD platform to set its front-page autoplay on loop to inflate its own viewing numbers, boosting its profile. If The Net had taught me anything, it’s that nothing is unhackable and nothing online is to be trusted, not even Pizza.Net.

-Brandon Ledet

Escape Room (2019)

People like to joke about January being a toxic wasteland for cinematic releases, but for all practical purposes it might genuinely be my favorite cinematic month of the year. Not only is January a notorious dumping ground for Hollywood studios to unload cheap genre trash into wide release in a gloriously uninhibited free-for-all, it’s also the time of year when prestigious Oscar Hopefuls trickle down from NYC & LA to finally reach the American South. It’s a truly jarring overlap that allows for maniacally curated double features like Silence & Monster Trucks or Mom and Dad & Call Me By Your Name, the kind of high-brow/low-brow battleground I always crave at the cinema. Even as an enthusiastic defender of January genre trash, however, I was taken aback by the entertainment quality of this year’s earliest release of note the high-concept gimmick horror Escape Room. Escape Room is the ideal specimen of January trash, where all storytelling logic & meaningful character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, preposterous gimmick. My only regret is that I didn’t think to pair it with something prestigious, like Roma or If Beale Street Could Talk, even though that was totally doable thanks to the bonkers programming choices that always kick off the calendar year.

When stripped down to its essentials, Escape Room is the ideal version of Saw – with all of its nasty torture porn impulses & (most of) its nu metal soundtrack removed for optimal silliness. A group of money & adventure hungry strangers are lured to a high-end escape room with the promise of a $10,000 payout if they solve the puzzle therein. The exposition that introduces the escape room’s contestants (and, later, combatants) is smartly kept brief – reducing the film’s characters to broad archetypes who are instantly familiar, so no time is wasted. Once the boring business of telling a story with emotional stakes is swept away, they find themselves struggling for survival, both as a team & as opponents, in a series of preposterous death traps – escape rooms except for real. As they fight their way through creepy mannequins, oversized ovens, and monstrous doses of hallucinogens, a larger conspiracy about why they were chosen as participants and who, exactly, is pulling the levers behind the curtain emerges, but the effort amounts to even less than the half-assed motions towards character development & meaningful dialogue. This movie is entirely about in-the-moment cheap thrills, which it supplies in exponentially silly delirium as its escape room gimmicks escalate towards a near-global scale.

Besides keeping its character work to a bare minimum, Escape Room is smart in its acknowledgement of the dorkiness of its own premise. When a college student receives a Hellraiser puzzlebox invitation to the titular escape room, her roommate jokes “Have fun playing with your box over break.” Later, an uptight business prick endlessly razzes the escape room’s most enthusiastic participant for his nerdy obsession with escape rooms in general, essentially brushing him off as a virginal loser. There aren’t many other flashes of intelligence to be found in the picture, unless you’re easily impressed by casually tossed off references to Satre that have no actual significance to the tone or plot. The movie acknowledges that escape rooms are inherently dorky, rushes to pack one with broad caricatures anyway, and then puts its head down to power through the most absurd applications of its gimmick that it can conjure in just 100 minutes. You can squint your eyes looking for interesting choices in neon lighting, spooky synth music, or lavish production design, but you’d be fooling yourself for trying to pump this film up for being anything more than it is: cheap January genre trash with an all-in commitment to an attention-grabbing gimmick. It’s entirely satisfying for being just that and not pretending there’s a need for more.

-Brandon Ledet

2.0 (2018)

There’s a cinematic downtime in the post-Thanksgiving afterglow, when Major Oscar contenders have not yet arrived in smaller markets and Falls’ big-budget blockbusters have long outworn their welcome, leaving little to be excited about on local big screens. This entertainment void can sometimes lead to risky programming choices, like walking into an Indian sci-fi action epic with no preparation or context for what you’re watching. I saw the Tamil-language “Kollywood” production 2.0 in 3D as a total blind-purchase. I didn’t even know it was a sequel to the 2010 film Endhiran until I recognized its superhero character Chitti from “viral content’ memes of its predecessor’s more ludicrous scenes. The heroic android Chitti does not arrive until at least an hour into the film. The full nature & history of the supervillain he’s tasked to disarm is withheld for even longer. As such, I had absolutely no idea what direction 2.0’s sprawling 3-hour narrative was going to swerve at any point, making for one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. I don’t know how well that experience will translate to people who have already seen Endhiran or have a better familiarity with the peculiar structure & tones of a typical Kollywood sci-fi action comedy. Even reading this review before seeing 2.0 compromises your chance to replicate the experience. All I can report is that I was shocked & delighted throughout this go-for-broke live action cartoon.

I was already pleased with my blind purchase of a 2.0 ticket as soon as its opening credits, which are constructed like the kind of 3D virtual reality “rollercoaster” that people used to go gaga for at Disney World in the early aughts. That cheap-thrills amusement park ride through the “futuristic” opening credits is then disrupted by an incredibly bleak simulation of an entirely different VR experience: a first-person POV suicide. A gloomy old man hangs himself by a noose from a cellphone tower, birds swarming around his swinging body in a pitch-black tonal shift. His damned spirit then somehow uses the amplification of the cellphone tower to confiscate & spiritually possess all the world’s smartphones as revenge for the planet’s modern ills that drove him to suicide. 2.0 quickly reveals itself to be a gleefully over-the-top participant in my pet favorite genre territory: the technophobic cyberthriller about the Evils of the Internet. Our freshly-minted Luddite ghost is righteously angry about the ways cellphone towers have disrupted the lives & flight patterns of birds, so he hacks/haunts every phone he can gather to attack the very men who have greedily traded in bird lives for profit. Smartphones gather in slow-creeping blankets that cover entire rooms & roads, surrounding their bird-killing capitalist targets and eventually exploding them from the inside in moments of Cronenbergian body horror. Only one force is considered effective enough to subdue this supernatural birds’ rights activist: everyone’s favorite superhero android Chitti, whom I’ve honestly ever heard of despite his worldwide heroic acclaim.

Chitti’s universally lovable superheroics play like a silly joke – and it’s hilarious. The same slightly pudgy, middle aged actor who plays the scientist who created Chitti, Rajinikanth, also doubles as the superhero robot – distinguished as a piece of future-tech by his shiny silver jacket & knockoff Oakley sunglasses. He looks like someone’s milquetoast uncle snuck into one of those creepy Duracell commercials from the 90s, like the mild-mannered sitcom equivalent of Max Headroom. He travels by metal-gear heelies, leaving a comically unimpressive trail of sparks behind him as he zips around the city. He’s also supported by updated Chitti models that allow Rajinikanth­­ to stretch his acting chops in high-concept questions like “What if Chitti was a macho asshole?” or “What if Chitti were tiny & cute?” The deliriously over-the-top fun of Chitti’s mugging-at-the-camera superheroics is enough of a sugary blast to make you forget that 2.0 was once a grim, violent cyber-horror about vengefully possessed smartphones. The way the two halves of that divide clash in a giant go-for-broke superhero climax is far sillier, wilder, and more memorable than anything you’ll find in the MCU. The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. 2.0 lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate about the power of positivity into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. It almost doesn’t matter if you aren’t already familiar with Chitti or the usual modes of Kollywood filmmaking; the movie will go out of its way to entertain you in any way it can, even if it means concluding on a Dirty Computer-esque sci-fi music video that blows through the entire budget of an indie feature in just a few minutes.

I look forward to reviewing Chitti’s previous adventures in Endrihan and exploring similarly over-the-top Kollywood action spectacles, but I’m also glad I was able to stumble into 2.0 without any contextual preparation. That’s a rare treat for a modern moviegoer. It’s so rare, in fact, that I found myself tickled by stray novelties that might have otherwise bothered me if they were something I had come to expect as cinematic norms: in-your-face 3D ad placements, Indian nu-metal, slow-motion reaction shots that hold on an extra’s face for at least a beat too long. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly. Chitti & company are 100% in on the joke, but 2.0 still commits to its ludicrous premise with full sincerity. I’d be lucky to experience that at the cinema every year.

-Brandon Ledet

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

The two things I dislike & distrust most about 1970s grindhouse genre cheapies are the rampant depictions of sexual assault and the lethargic, stoney-baloney pacing. I Drink Your Blood suffers from both, yet the movie charmed me anyway. For all the exploitative & energetic faults I can find in the film as a supposed shock-a-minute gore fest, it’s just too gleefully & gloriously trashy on a conceptual level for me to disregard its merits. A nasty grindhouse gross-out about rabid, Satanic hippie cannibals chowing down on the God-fearing folks of a town just like yours, I Drink Your Blood is perfectly calibrated midnight fare. Even my complaints about its pacing & careless sexual assault issues are more endemic to the era of its genre than indicative of its strengths as an isolated picture; the rape occurs off-screen, not at all played for titillation, and the slow pace allows breathing room for a rowdy public screening party atmosphere (that I was likely missing out on by watching the film alone on my couch via Kanopy). This is one of those curios that’s commendable for the audacity of its own existence, especially considering its ludicrous premise and the extremity of its apparent politics—a movie that’s most entertaining for the disbelief that your watching it all, that it was ever made or distributed.

Satan-worshipping hippies invade a small town, planning to stage sacrificial rituals in the nearby woods. They brutalize & rape eavesdroppers, laugh in the face of local children & elderly, and tiptoe toward graduating from animal sacrifices to their Dark Lord to human ones. Fed up with the adults around him’s unwillingness to confront these youth culture reprobates, a child plans to rid his town of the hippie scum by feeding them meat pies he injects with rabies-infected dog blood. The plan backfires, as the hippies foam at the mouth and become crazed cannibals, eating everyone they can get their mouths on, spreading rabies to survivors. The result is the mayhem typical to a zombie outbreak, with the red acrylic stage blood of most grindhouse productions bathing the town as lives, limbs, and infected rats are liberally strewn about. The rabies is also spread through the hippies’ shameless sexual exploits (such as banging an entire crew of construction workers at once), recalling early stirrings of Cronenberg freak-outs like Shivers. You could probably also track the film as an influence on other mania-driven horrors like George Romero’s The Crazies, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, and even the recent Nic Cage pic Mom & Dad, but ultimately it feels very much like a product of its time, just another batshit insane drive-in horror of the grindhouse era.

Nothing demonstrates I Drink Your Blood’s quality of being of its time quite like the film’s connection to the Manson Family murders. Less than a year after the infamous slaughter of Sharon Tate & house guests, this film shamelessly exploited the public’s fear of acid-dropping, Satan worshipping hippies by making the entire Free Love moment look like a cover for the hedonistic violence that was secretly driving the counterculture. It even makes hippies’ perceived egalitarian racial politics out to be something oddly sinister, with widely varied ethnicities represented among the cannibals’ ranks exaggerated as if they were gangs from The Warriors. And just in case you don’t connect the dots between those killer hippie scum and the killer hippies in the newspapers, the cannibals in the film write “PIG” in lipstick on their first human sacrifice’s stomach, one of the more widely-shared lurid details from the Sharon Tate tragedy, I Drink Your Blood attempts to scare audiences with alarmist depictions of youths gone out of control, the same tactic exploited in later cult pictures like Class of 1999. The irony, of course, is that most of the audience for these shock-a-minute genre pictures is the youth of the day, so that they always play as a kind of perverse, tongue-in-cheek parody of that alarmism.

Despite all of I Drink Your Blood’s shoddiness in craft and laughable attacks on the ills of youth culture & peace-loving (read: Satan-worshipping) hippiedom, the film is still grimy enough to be genuinely upsetting. Its characters’ hyperviolent LSD freak-outs are never accompanied by goofball hallucinatory imagery — instead manifesting as frustrated, sweaty intensity & wide-eyed madness. Even before the LSD or rabies kicks in, the hippies are already at least a little terrifying, especially as they maniacally chase rats out of their new squat with early signs of bloodlust. That mood-setter makes the eventual rabid hippie mayhem feel like a plague of rats spreading through small-town America – a grotesquely reductive, Conservative view of the times (hilariously so). There’s an authenticity to that viewpoint too, as even the crew of this production had territorial fights with the residents of the small town where they filmed, uptight folks who did not want their kind around. I could lie & say that this genuinely disturbing grime & historical context are what makes the film worth a watch, but the truth is that those are just lagniappe textures to the movie’s true bread & rabid dog’s blood-injected butter: the absurdity of its premise. Like most grindhouse fare, this is a movie that’s largely entertaining for its over-the-top conceptual indulgences, something you have to tolerate a little moral unease & impatience to fully appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet

Slingshot Cops (2016)

Like an MCU film, an episode of a soap opera, or a single match from a months-long pro wrestling angle, it’s almost entirely pointless to review a Matt Farley picture isolated from the larger context of the Motern Media catalog. Outside maybe the holy trinity of Matt Farley’s most accomplished movies (Local Legends; Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas; and Don’t let the Riverbeast Get You!) it’s difficult to imagine someone stumbling upon a Motern production with no prior context and fully appreciating the perversely wholesome experience of what the film represents. Even Matt Farley’s holy trinity benefits from some prior knowledge of his decades of D.I.Y. media production with a stable cast of recurring collaborators, something you can only experience by watching the movies yourself. Motern Media is the definition of cult cinema in this way, as sinking further into the published materials, released over decades of backyard film productions and novelty songs recordings churned out from attics & basements, feels exactly like being indoctrinated into a cult. You don’t casually appreciate a Matt Farley film so much as you’re put under a spell by it, something you don’t realize until you’re six movies deeper into the catalog and conversing with Farley directly on Twitter, by phone, or traveling to see him perform in person at his annual Motern Media Day Extravaganza concerts (i.e. cult member meetups). As such, Slingshot Cops is not a movie I’d readily recommend to the previously unconverted, but rather the latest dispatch from a maniacal mind that has hijacked my own. It’s an aggressively silly comedy with an unnecessarily complex, self-contained mythology (a descriptor most of Farely’s backyard production share), but it’s something best enjoyed as just one piece in a much larger, sillier whole. It’s a continuation of a performance art piece/cultist tome that has only gained strength in the last two decades of under-the-radar development: Matt Farley’s life & career.

To that point, the first thing I noticed in Slingshot Cops is how much older Farley’s crew of Motern regulars has gotten over the years, especially performers who have been around since the early 00s days of films like Druid Gladiator Clone. As much as Farley is staging supernatural hangout comedies & over-the-top horror spoofs around familiar New England haunts, he’s also documenting the life & times of his inner social circle. Druid Gladiator Clone was a snapshot of their lives as late-college age brats adopting the aesthetic of the skateboard videos & MTV prank shows that defined its era. By the time Slingshot Cops catches up with them, you can feel the not-too-distant early signs of middle age creeping in from corners of the frame. Domesticity, grey hairs, and aging bodies appear onscreen as visual reminders of just how long Farley & co. have been hammering at their insular, decades-long collaboration of building a substantive catalog of supernatural, microbudget comedies. This stamina (or stubbornness depending on how you want to look at it) is impressive not only because of the crew’s collective longevity, but also because how of how well they’ve maintained the silliness at their shared objective’s core. Everyone onscreen might be nearly fifteen years older in Slingshot Cops than they were in Druid Gladiator Clone, but they’re just as big of goofballs as ever, fully committed to the nonsensical absurdity they’re tasked to perform. Even though it’s framed through modern digital equipment instead of adopting the earlier film’s MiniDV camcorder look, Slingshot Cops is of the same quality & wholesomely prankish energy as Druid Gladiator Clone. It’s a consistent commitment to a bit I doubt I’ve ever seen from any filmmaker before, even someone working with 100x Farley’s budget. As with all Motern productions, the existence of the film as a completed product is among Slingshot Cops’s most miraculous accomplishments, but it’s now gotten to the point where Motern’s continued existence itself is the larger, more astounding miracle – something that only becomes more heroic with each subsequent picture.

Matt Farley himself stars in this “supernatural buddy cop comedy” as a loose cannon police officer who’s sworn to protect the small New England town of Woodsville Center. He’s a well-meaning cop (as much as that’s good for), but he often finds himself in “quirky predicaments” that jeopardize his place on the force. In particular, his single-minded obsession with ridding Woodsville Center’s streets of illegal fireworks (which are treated in-film with the same gravitas as heroin) often inspires him to cross the good cop/bad cop line, which sees him demoted and reassigned to tutelage under a more even-keeled, old-timer partner. It turns out, though, that the year-round use of “personal explosives” for “amusement and/or atmospheric aesthetics” is not the only threat to civility in Woodsville Center. The town is also terrorized by the arrival of an international archvillain named Sensefoot, who can steal unsuspecting victims’ senses by touching them with his bare foot. Worse, if he touches their bare foot with his own, he kills them immediately. As if that mythology weren’t overly complicated enough already, Farley’s new partner also has the eccentricity of fighting crime with a slingshot (hence the title), which he arms with carefully-selected acorns. The town also has cartoonish obsessions with cupcakes, folk songs, freethrow basketball contests, and a whole list of other absurdist interests that land Farley & crew in “quirky predicaments” throughout the film. A less developed microbudget comedy would have stuck with a singular idea, framing an entire movie around dogs being terrorized by firework noises or the image of the not-so-mysterious Sensefoot’s glowing appendage approaching from offscreen like a straight razor in a gloved hand from a giallo picture.  By contrast, Farley only sees those details as launching points & an excuse to stage non-sequitur gags. Just describing the basic plot & background mythology of Slingshot Cops is exhausting, which is an impressive thing to be able to say about a movie that was pieced together over a series of weekends & downtimes by longtime friends & amateur collaborators.

One of the first things that stood out to me in Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, my first Matt Farley experience, is that characters recount the entire plot of the film in-dialogue every few minutes. It’s a maddening commitment to repetition that only became funnier the more it became punishing. Slingshot Cops similarly goes for broke in its own commitment to repetition. Farley’s protagonist repeats variations of the phrase “Alright, I’ll play it your way” to conclude nearly every conversation. An “Eastern European” character declares his vague nationality at every appearance by declaring “I’m Eastern European!” instead of attempting an identifiable accent. Similarly, cupcakes, dogs’ reactions shots, acorns, and phrases like “thrill-seeking preppie” are repeated at such a consistent rhythm that they can’t help but become funny with time. This repetition is also indicative of Motern’s larger appeal. Slingshot Cops is most impressive as a continuation of good-natured, prankish bit Farley & friends have been repeating onscreen for decades, something that only gets funnier the more you see it echoed in each picture. There’s also a familiarity built into that repetition. These New England nobodies become so familiar as you sink into the Motern catalog that they feel like old friends or even, because you can practically watch them grow up in real time, family. All cults self-brand as welcoming, wholesome families, though, and it’s just as likely that this repetition & familiarity hasn’t become funny to me so much as it’s hypnotized me into a receptive, brainwashed state of joyful compliance. This is usually the point in cult indoctrination where the previously unmentioned orgy breaks out or the cult leader demands access to my (non-existent) life’s savings, a hammer I’m expecting to drop any day now. It can’t be true that Farley & crew are this consistently wholesome & dedicated to friendly collaboration on long-term, absurdly silly art projects without being a secretly evil cult. It’s too good to be true otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Evils of the Night (1985)

At the center of every early 80s slasher is a self-contradictory attitude towards sex. As a genre, slashers are obsessed with teenage horniness. However, they also reinforce old-fashioned values towards sexuality by punishing teen libidos with swift deaths, usually before the desire is consummated. The slasher is an evolution of the classic “road to ruin” exploitation picture in that way, allowing its audience to indulge in the thrill of young people (especially women) misbehaving, only to be brutally punished for the transgression. The 1985 sci-fi horror Evils of the Night starts as a brilliant subversion of that prudish, self-contradictory moralism. Evils of the Night begins the way most slashers do: gawking at teens as they make love in the woods, then are attacked by a mysterious, masked assailant. What’s different is how far the violence-inciting lovemaking goes. Implied cunnilingus & a young woman licking her male partner’s chest hairs immediately indicate that Evils of the Night is willing to push its prurient obsession with teenage horniness beyond the sheepish boundaries of the typical slasher. Then the young dummies start fucking, like, for real. The sex is likely simulated, but it is graphic, falling an insertion shot short of hardcore pornography. A dimwitted teen is still choked to death by an off-screen killer mid-coitus, so the movie easily qualifies as a genuine slasher specimen. It’s also a softcore porno, though, one where 80s pornstar Amber Lynn is joined by the likes of aged television personalities John Carradine, Julie Newmar (Catwoman), and Tina Louise (Ginger, of Gilligan’s Island). And as if that weren’t enough bizarro energy for a 74 minute horror cheapie, the movie is also overrun with 1950s-style space aliens, just because.

On Wikipedia, Evils of the Night is listed as a “science fiction/porno horror” hybrid. This is technically accurate, but it’s difficult to say if any one of the three genres listed in that descriptor are fully satisfied by the film as a finished product. The first half of Evils of the Night is a delightful novelty. Most cheap horror films are usually criticized for having porn-level acting & sets anyway, so it’s oddly refreshing to see one follow through on that (usually unintended) atmosphere. Suntanned idiots pound cheap beer & skinny-dip in a secluded campsite lake while an 80s pop music soundtrack inanely rattles, “Boys will be boys, that’s how they’ll always be.” The only thing that feels out of place is that the genre’s juvenile fixation on naked breasts is dragged out to an absurd length, to the point where two girls are sensually rubbing suntan lotion on each other’s areolas in a display of true, helpful friendship. This gaggle of horned-up teen idiots are incrementally thinned out by elderly garage mechanics in ski masks, who abduct them in small batches and sell them alive to a nearby “hospital” run by space aliens who trade gold coins for teen blood. The sci-fi costuming of the hospital nursing staff looks like an Atomic Age diner-themed strip club uniform, but the nurses themselves never get in on the lurid sex action enjoyed by the pre-abducted teens (outside some mild lesbian caresses). Instead, they shoot stun gun laser beams out of their space alien finger rings and await orders from the bombshell doctor in charge (Newmar), as if this were a colorized Ed Wood picture instead of a slasher-spoofing “porno horror.” Unfortunately, the two halves of the film, the sex slasher and the retro sci-throwback, never converge with any satisfaction. Instead, the movie is seemingly zapped of all its energy (and budget) midway through and wastes an alarming portion of its runtime in the wicked mechanics’ garage, patiently waiting for the credits to roll.

The first shot of Evils of the Night is an impressive special effects display of a UFO landing in the woods, teasing a grand sci-fi spectacle the movie has no intention to deliver. By the time you realize the entire third act is going to be staged in an unadorned garage, however, it becomes clear that special effects footage was lifted from a better-funded production. Had the sci-fi portion of the film led to the hospital staff’s grotesque practical effects transformations into alien beasts it could have made a substantial mark as a late-right cult film oddity. Instead, it drops the two things that make it notable as a variation on the slasher genre (the aliens and the sex) and concludes with two greasy creeps wielding phallic industrial drills, a display we’ve seen pulled off before (and better) in titles like Slumber Party Massacre & Body Double. It’s almost bizarre enough in that opening, pornographic stretch to make the third act’s doldrums worthwhile, though. Evils of the Night only becomes bland once it stops having sex and starts playing its straight-forward slasher beats as if they were inherently interesting on their own. With a more punched-up conclusion (either through space alien transformations or more lakeside skin-lotioning) it could have been a midnight movie classic. Instead, it’s the kind of midnight movie that starts as perversely thrilling, then puts you to sleep halfway through.

-Brandon Ledet